Thursday, July 14, 2016

Courbet's The Stone Breakers - Alive and Well in Winterthur

The Advanced Placement course in Art History is unique in that it is based on an in-depth knowledge of 250 pieces of art from all around the world. Teachers of this course know that two of the 250 works no longer exist. The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were infamously destroyed by the Taliban. But the art history textbooks tell us that Gustave Courbet's oil painting The Stone Breakers from 1849, (number 113 in the list of 250) was destroyed and is, consequently, only known from photographs. Fred Kleiner's, Gardner's Art through the Ages, one of the most popular art history textbooks in the world, provides a picture of the work and, in the caption, writes: "Formerly Gemaldegalerie, Dresden (destroyed in 1945)." Alas, the work was a victim of the British incendiary bombing of Dresden on the night of February 13th 1945, a bombing raid immortalized in literature in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughter House Five. It is thus very sad that we can only ever know this work second-hand, so to speak, from photographs like this one:

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, Oil on canvas, 1849

But hang on a second. Imagine the surprise of an AP Art History teacher or student who visits the marvelous Oscar Reinhart collection, housed in the small museum 'Am Romerholz' in Winterthur, Switzerland, and encounters the following painting:

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, Oil on canvas, c. 1849

More than likely, they won't believe their eyes. Especially when they read the identifying label, which states: "Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers. Oil on canvas, c. 1849.". What's going on? Has the work risen from the grave or, phoenix-like, from the ashes? Or have the wily Swiss secreted the work away all along, (like they have done with great deal of the world's stolen art!). Of course if the surprised connoisseur of 19th century French Realism happens to have a photographic memory, or happens to have a photograph of number 113 in her pocket, or (more likely) has an iPhone and does an internet search and locates an image of the destroyed work, she will see that the two images are not identical.

Firstly, the painting in Winterthur is darker in colour and the jacket of the old man kneeling down is not red and there is no flash of sky blue in the upper right corner. The attentive viewer will notice that above the men's heads in the work in Winterthur, is a lot of negative space. In the destroyed version, the men are more monumental, the standing youth's head reaches almost to the top of the canvas. The basket to the left of the young man has disappeared in the Swiss version. The wall that the men seem to breaking down is lower in the Winterthur painting than in the Dresden painting and the men's feet are closer to each other. Another difference, but impossible to see, is that the destroyed version was bigger by far, but we don't notice this because we only know it from small photographs.

But, of course there is one other, very obvious difference - they are reversed images of each other. Could it be that every text book has gotten it wrong and the photographs in books reversed the negative, providing us with a mirror image of the real work? It wouldn't be the first time this has happened? But no. If you look carefully you will see that Courbet signed the Dresden painting in the bottom left corner, and his signature reads the right way around. Most mysteriously, in the Winterthur painting he has signed it in the bottom right hand corner.

So why two versions of this painting, with the exception of some minor details, almost identical except for size and reversal? It is that latter contrast that is the real mystery. The fact is, no one knows. Perhaps the smaller painting was a sketch - but why the reversal? In the annotated catalogue of the Oscar Reinhart Am Romerholz collection we find the following suggestion: "The smaller picture, less highly finished and showing the scene in reverse, is perhaps later in date and may have been painted as the basis of a print, which would explain why it reproduces the motif as a mirror-image". Perhaps. I suppose it is a good explanation. Only problem is, I don't know of any 19th century print of this work. Such a piece of material evidence would certainly be needed to satisfy that explanation.

So, it remains a bit of a mystery as to why Courbet painted this scene twice, one big version and one smaller. But for me personally, the bigger mystery is why does the art history world ignore the version in Winterthur? Could it be that the authors of the textbooks, like Fred Kleiner, are unaware of its existence? The Khan Academy has helpfully and generously produced a series of posts that provide background on every one of the 250 in the AP Art History course. But they seem to be unaware that a second version of this work is still in existence. Don't take my word for it, you can access their post here.

The oil painting The Stone Breakers in Dresden must have been an overwhelming, monumental work. Alas, it was destroyed. But it is not the case that we must make do with only small, paper reproductions in our textbooks. Teachers and students of art history should be aware that a very real oil painting of The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet is alive and well and living in the Oscar Reinhart Collection 'Am Romerholz' in Winterthur, Switzerland. I saw it there myself just yesterday.